On a hot summer night, is there anything quite as magical as a field full of glowing lightning bugs?
Those little beacons of summer don’t blink just so kids can chase them around. Fireflies light up to communicate with each other; flashing to attract potential mates. In Massachusetts, there are numerous species of the blinking beetles, each with its own unique flash pattern.
But if you think you’re seeing fewer fireflies these days than in summers’ past, you might be right.
“It is likely that there are fewer fireflies than in the past, just as there are fewer insects in general,” said Alexandra Dohan, Education Department Coordinator at Mass Audubon. There are at least two reasons for this, she said, and probably more.
“One is that there are more people on earth, which means more houses, which means less habitat. Huge houses such as are being built in much of suburban Boston, with tiny yards, are definitely not good for fireflies. Another problem for fireflies, as for all insects, is the use of pesticides.”
In addition, she said light pollution could be another reason we see fewer fireflies – they’re there, but it’s too bright for us to notice their blinking glow.
Researchers have long been looking into the decline of lightning bugs, and for over a decade, have been enlisting the public’s help.
The Citizen Firefly Watch, first launched by the Museum of Science in 2008, combines summer fun with scientific research as “citizen scientists” around the country observe lightning bugs in their own backyards to help researchers map fireflies.
In 2018, Mass Audubon took over the project, teaming up with researchers from Tufts University to track the fate of fireflies. With the help of everyday bug-watchers at home, they’re learning about the geographic distribution of the insects and what environmental factors impact their abundance.
Dohan said most of these citizen scientists take part in the project just for fun; it’s often a family project, retirement hobby, or homeschooling venture. They have high hopes for a busy season this summer, as folks are staying close to home and getting outside more.
It’s easy for your family to get involved with the project. Once a week during firefly season, spend ten minutes outside observing lightning bugs in one location (your backyard or a nearby field). Keep track of the activity and record it on the Citizen Firefly Watch website.
While all firefly sightings – or lack thereof – are useful to the researchers, it’s certainly more fun to monitor a site with action than an area without it. Fireflies like open, grassy places, but there are some to be found in wooded areas, too.
“Any park, field, yard, or playground that has some bushes and isn't treated with pesticides will probably have some fireflies,” said Dohan. “Go outside as soon as it gets dark, let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and start watching.”
To take part in the Citizen Firefly Watch, go to massaudubon.org/get-involved/citizen-science/firefly-watch.